A novel neuregulin isoform, termed gamma-HRG, was cloned and characterized from the human breast cancer cell line, MDA-MB-175. As observed with other neuregulins, gamma-HRG, is a product of alternative mRNA splicing of the neuregulin gene. Gamma-HRG contains the EGF-like and immunoglobulin-like domains that are commonly found in other family members, but lacks a transmembrane and cytoplasmic region. The new isoform possesses a unique N-terminal region that includes a hydrophobic domain that may function as a secretion signal. A purified recombinant version of gamma-HRG competes for binding to soluble ErbB3- and ErbB4-IgG fusion proteins with affinities similar to those observed for rHRGbeta1(177-244). Gamma-HRG has a wide distribution in mesenchymal or neuronal tissues but in contrast to other neuregulins, it is not present in breast, lung, liver and small intestine. Expression of gamma-HRG with its cognate receptors, ErbB3 and ErbB2 suggested that the growth of the MDA-MB-175 cell line might be a result of the autocrine stimulation of a growth factor signaling pathway. Treatment of MDA-MB-175 cells with an anti-ErbB2 monoclonal antibody that interferes with the ligand-dependent formation of ErbB2-ErbB3 heterodimer complexes shows a strong growth inhibitory effect on this cell line. Moreover, incubation with a receptor-IgG fusion protein that neutralizes secreted gamma-HRG, also inhibits cell growth. These data suggest that the secretion of gamma-HRG by MDA-MB-175 cells leads to the formation of a constitutively active receptor complex and stimulates the growth of these cells in an autocrine manner.